FTC Commissioner Julie Brill: Ad Industry Must Shape Up, Or Face The Wrath Of Ad Blockers

julie brill FtcAd blocking might be marketers’ current headache, but FTC Commissioner Julie Brill believes it’s up to the advertising industry to alleviate that pain.

At AdExchanger’s Industry Preview event in New York on Thursday, she called on the audience of vendors, agencies and marketers to create “usable tools” so consumers can deal with their privacy concerns.

“Not to find ways to work around consumer choice, but to provide consumers with something they clearly want: to see advertising that respects their privacy and that they can trust,” Brill said. “Until that happens, more and more consumers will continue to take advantage of ad-blocking services.” Read her full speech.

Here’s the problem: Advertising technology is getting better at leveraging consumer activity, but it’s more difficult than ever for consumers to understand and control when their data is being collected and how it will be used. The advent of cross-device tracking complicates matters further.

“We reviewed the 20 top websites in five popular consumer categories to see whether consumers were being tracked across their devices and, if so, how the practice was described to them,” Brill said. “We are still analyzing the data from our survey, but suffice it to say that we detected the presence of many third parties that engage in cross-device tracking, and yet we didn’t see many disclosures about the practice.”

The lack of disclosure muddles the value exchange that consumers get for relinquishing their data, Brill said. She cited a study from the University of Pennsylvania that found 91% of people didn’t believe free or discounted content justified undisclosed data collection.

“I can’t blame them,” Brill said. “How can consumers knowingly bargain for free content without actually knowing what they are giving up, to whom and for what purpose?”

She seemed concerned the advertising industry was taking advantage of this ignorance. Case in point: While everyone agrees medical records are off limits for ad targeting, Brill noted that the advertising industry shares and leverages search results and browsing habits on medical websites.

“So the fact that you surfed the web or used an app to learn about an STD or diabetes or heart disease can be added to behavioral profiles and lead to targeted ads on other websites,” she said. “For too long, this has been a significant gap in industry rules, and it should be closed.”

These practices have inspired consumers to find more draconian mechanisms of control. Brill said she was surprised the ad tech industry didn’t offer better privacy control tools initially to negate the need for ad blockers. “It has always been the case that consumers could take matters into their own hands,” she said.

Now the industry seems to be in react mode – though most of the activity comes from the publisher side. Brill noted how Yahoo Mail, The Washington Post, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post and Bloomberg are all experimenting with different methods to improve the ad experience and entice consumers to switch off their ad blockers.

But she also indicated advertisers haven’t been as willing to address the challenge head-on.

“It has surprised me that, so far, few advertisers seem willing to take up the offer to limit data retention, or to otherwise ensure consumers that they are treating their data properly,” Brill said. “It’s hard for me to believe that serving an ad while limiting data retention isn’t better than serving no ad at all.”

In the meantime, native advertising seems to be one of the more popular strategies to dodge ad blockers. However, it’s a practice that potentially creates new disclosure issues. (i.e., Does the reader know when she’s reading an ad?) As such, native advertising addresses the symptoms – digital ads being blocked – more than the actual problems around lack of disclosure, clarity and control.

And because native units, by their nature, are designed to blend into their environment, it’s still imperative that consumers understand clearly when they’re looking at an ad. Improperly used, native ads run the risk of eroding consumer trust even further, Brill said.

The FTC’s message consistently has been around notice and choice – a resounding theme in its first PrivacyCon, held this month. But given the complexity of the ad tech industry, it’s not easy to develop data-control tools that are both easy for consumers to use and thorough. The onus seems to be on the advertising industry, and during PrivacyCon Brill indicated that this challenge is not insurmountable.

If the automotive industry can figure out how to let consumers manage cars with complex computer systems, she said earlier this month, then advertisers can figure out how to help consumers manage complex ad choices.

To that end, the ad industry’s attempts at doing this have been met with scorn. For instance, the Digital Advertising Agency has its blue AdChoices icon, which claims to be a consumer-facing data-control mechanism – though privacy advocates say the tool isn’t adequate.

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